I always suspected that I would be famous. Even as a young child, with my parents fussing as parents will and my older brother forging a path before me from which I would deviate as soon as I was able, I knew somehow that my name would be repeated by others in hushed tones. Urgent, awed and terrified. The unworthy, confronted by a mediaeval saint.
An Irishman with a fiddle, a shrewd and lazy farmer, a shepherd and a rooster and a bridge. Who doesn’t know a story about the Devil? Churches, dykes, punchbowls, myths hung on standing stones, tales woven around camp fires late at night for children desperate to taste some thrill of the unknown. And always, always, a cunning man who outwits Old Nick and escapes with his soul intact. Exalted company indeed.
Moses Kafulu, the man who tricked the Devil!
Or so I thought.
I first learned that I was a wanted man when my neighbour Cortés knocked at the door of my apartment.
“The police are on their way,” he said when I opened the door, his dark eyes firing glances down the hallway as he spoke, “I heard them talking to Emerson on the ground floor. They mentioned your name. If I were you I’d get out, and I’d go by the back door.”
I didn’t reply. What was there to say? What ever is there to say about the police in this city of filth and lies?
Cortés hurried away down the corridor and I closed the door behind him. I leaned against flaking paint, my shirt damp on my back. The heat in the apartment came in waves.
“What is it?” said Mercedes.
“We’ve got to go,” I said.
“The police are coming for me.”
“What have you done?” said Kinderman.
What had I done? Nothing, of course. Though I wouldn’t be so naïve as to expect anyone to believe such an assertion. After all, every prisoner in every prison is innocent.
I pushed myself away from the door and swept through the apartment, snatching up a worn rucksack and stuffing into it what rudimentary provisions I could find. Outside my window the city boiled with heat and hatred, the air between the shacks and concrete blocks and colonial relics tinted sepia by the pollution that hung heavy in the streets. I pushed open the window (such was my ‘back door’) and helped my two friends out onto the narrow metal-grill walkway that led to the fire escape before following them myself, and within moments we had clattered down to street level and were threading our way between the fly-blown dustbins, wading through the sticky-sweet odour of rotting fruit.
By the time we reached the car my heart was pounding, and I ushered Mercedes and Kinderman onto the back seats before clambering behind the wheel. With clammy, unsteady hands I jerked the car into action, guided us out of the tangled backstreets and slipped onto the main road that oozed traffic through the middle of the city’s clogged arteries.
I drove south across the city, past the Grand Revolutionary Stadium, past the abandoned cigar factory that was once the beating heart of this city, past the drunks, the junkies, the hookers and other heaps of human rubble that collected in drifts on the edges of Los Hoyos. The fastest route out of the city led straight past the Presidential palace, and as we passed its bloated marble columns and looming archways a taste of the sweet wind that blew from the south caused me to giggle with imbecilic relief. I laughed at the colossal bronze statue of the President as it stood beside the road and frowned in paternal disapproval at all who passed, and I was still laughing when the traffic thinned to nothing and the dust of the city limits curled up behind us in the rear view mirror.
As we left the city the country unfurled before us like a dirty blanket, and we sailed along a road that was all our own, my wide old car wallowing like a breaching whale as the asphalt slid beneath its wheels. Wiry grey bushes floated past us as we drove with a regularity that hinted at landscaping, and we passed a redback lizard basking amongst the rocks by the roadside, its black tongue flickering wearily. It smiled as we passed.
Why did it smile? Did it know that our car was about to run out of petrol? Did it find it amusing that the engine would cough and choke and protest to us for a short time that it could carry on, until I had no choice but to guide it to the side of the road and leave it to disintegrate, to slip into a quiet ferrous death amongst the scrub?
It would be easy, looking back, to map the errors that delineated the course of my downfall, but I am a pragmatic man and there is no profit to be had in regret. I led Mercedes and Kinderman out of the paralysed car, fetched my rucksack from the back and started walking. There was nothing else for it.
“What now?” said Kinderman. Mercedes gazed out at the sand.
“I’m sorry,” I said.
I hoped they understood that stopping for petrol in the city would have been far too risky. Mercedes turned to me and smiled bravely, and her youthful stoicism both surprised and impressed me.
I knew that the President’s thugs would have finished scouring my apartment and bullying my neighbours, and I knew also that my neighbours were not so loyal that they would protect me before themselves, so we headed away from the road and off up into the hills. We took no precautions to cover our trail, but I hoped that the abandoned car might confuse them a little and buy us some time.
I had no compass with me, and of course neither did Mercedes or Kinderman – why should a prostitute or a lawyer carry a compass? – but I knew roughly the topography of the barren lands south of Sucre. Most of the desert was undulating sand and dry, baked earth, and a great range of cracked hills ran south for miles before turning east, cupping the desiccated lands and holding them back from the sea. I gazed at the dusty brown peaks, the country’s ancient, crooked spine; if we could keep them to the right of us then they would funnel us towards the safety of the southern dunes, towards the village where I hoped that my brother still lived.
At first we travelled parallel to the road, but after an hour of walking the ribbon of tarmac swept ashamedly away from us, to head instead towards the sultry, mosquito-flecked swamps of the coast, and we were left without landmarks by which to plot our course.
Behind us came the police like avenging angels, and before us lay a rolling dry sea of pink earth and grey rock, as featureless as the wide ocean. Upon these waves we poor wretches found ourselves cast adrift.
(c) Simon John Cox